Beware of the Religious Enthusiast

They exist in every religious tradition. I'm not talking about fundamentalists. I'm talking about people who believe they're called to turn the spirit and idealism of a religious founder or reformer into institutions.

Elias of Cortona was the enthusiast to Francis of Assisi. One of Francis's closest friends in their spiritual brotherhood (the "Franciscans"), Elias was one of the first to join him, to believe in his spiritual vision, and to embrace the gospel-loving poverty that Francis was living. Many thought Francis crazy, but from the early days, Elias was his friend, follower, and confidante. He even became his vicar.

But at the height of the spiritual renaissance they sparked, once Francis was well on his way to becoming its saint, and Elias, its ecclesiastical head, something went terribly wrong. When Francis asked his brothers to wander and sing and dance, Elias began sending them to seminary. Where Francis taught poverty, Elias began building churches, convents, and schools. When Francis insisted on humility, Elias began to live like a cardinal.

For all his prescience in other aspects of life, Francis was blinded by affection for his friend. After he died, the situation grew even worse. Ousted from leadership, Elias insisted on building a lavish basilica to honor his friend's memory and was supported by the pope in the work. Yes, that basilica, the one that so many of us still cherish when we visit Assisi - where Elias secretly buried Francis's body under the high altar.

The truth is, Francis would have hated the basilica that has his name. It was built against everything he stood for.

Oscar Wilde once said, "Every great man nowadays has his disciples, and it is usually Judas who writes the biography." Was Elias Francis's Judas? I don't believe their story is that simple. But I believe we can't understand who Francis of Assisi was without understanding what happened between him and Elias, and what Elias did with what Francis started. The relationship that most consoled the saint was also the one that most challenged, disturbed, and upset him. Isn't that how it often happens, when idealism and Spirit are slowly undone by the enthusiasm of a devoted follower?

-Jon M. Sweeney is the author of The Pope Who Quit, optioned by HBO, and The Enthusiast: How the Best Friend of Francis of Assisi Almost Destroyed What He Started, just published by Ave Maria Press.